Tea production

Tea is cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It is an evergreen bush, generally grown at a fairly high altitude. Tea bushes mature for commercial exploitation 5 to 7 years after planting and can remain productive for over 50 years.


Global tea production reached 3.5 million tons in 2006. Although, tea is produced in more than 35 countries, only a handful - China, India, Sri Lanka and Kenya – account for nearly 75 percent of the production.


Plantations and smallholders

Tea is mostly produced in large plantations. Working conditions in these plantations are generally poor. Majority of the workers have no job security, they are trapped in lowly-paid temporary labour with little or no prospects of finding better jobs in the region. Many are seasonal labourers with no income when they are ill, pregnant or otherwise unfit to work, and generally receive lower wages and fewer social benefits such as medical care, housing, education and pensions. Besides, independent trade unions are non-existent, corrupt or ineffective.


Although, traditionally, tea is produced in large plantations, smallholders are now becoming increasingly important in the industry. In Sri Lanka and Kenya, for example, smallholders are responsible for more than 60 percent of the total production. Tea cultivation is an attractive proposition to small farmers as it provides work and income throughout the year, requires a relatively small investment, and the risk of complete crop failure is low. Problematic issues for smallholders include low farm gate prices, poor extension services, limited marketing channels, poor access to credit and low level of farmer organisation.


Besides the social and economic sustainability issues, tea production has considerable environmental impacts. There is a significant biodiversity loss when forests are converted to tea plantations. In addition to habitat conversion, logging for firewood needed to process tea can lead to extensive deforestation. Unregulated use of pesticides also negatively affects the local and wider environment.


For more specific case studies on these issues we refer to the SOMO report, Sustainability Issues in the Tea Sector